Popular history is nearly always wrong; or perhaps not quite right.
Many people now know that, no matter how many thousands of times it’s repeated on the internet, The 7th Duchess of Bedford, Anna Russell, did not ‘invent’ afternoon tea – which is often incorrectly called ‘High Tea’, just to add to the confusion.
The Duchess did popularise the meal; and many people fondly believe it to be the same meal we now know and love: England’s population in particular having a stiff, formal discourse over cucumber sandwiches, scones, little pastries and copious pots of tea.
It’s really not quite true. Most people couldn’t afford the meal, or might have had tea and a piece of bread and drippings. Not quite Downton Abbey, is it?
We will, however, take a look at the upper classes, and at time when the fondly-if-incorrectly remembered Duchess was enjoying afternoon tea, examine the meal they actually had.
Let’s start with beverages. A hundred years before the Duchess started enjoying it, the meal consisted of wine, cakes and biscuits. By the early 1800s, the beverage list had grown to sherry, mineral water, sparkling wine punch and tea.
Tea was served to the guests in cups: the idea of the teapot being present and the tea being brewed on the spot is a later idea, about 1890.
Dressing for tea was really important. Many cookbooks of the day start with advising the lady of the house to dress elegantly to make the food taste better.
When it comes to food, the centrepiece was usually a huge trifle, often surrounded by moulded ice creams. Yes, ice creams, which doesn’t exactly fit with what we see today.
The little pastries we see today were there, usually acquired at a nearby French patisserie as these have been popular in England for hundreds of years.
Regional dishes have added to the confusion: common offerings included stotty cakes, oatcakes, tea cakes, and lardy cakes, and all of those are actually breads, the last two having dried fruit and the first two being savoury. And of course gingerbread which isn’t a bread in this context but more of a biscuit.
And then there’s scones. Scones were often made the size of a cake, and cut into wedges, and were usually mildly sweetened.
And lastly, one popular item: The Fat Rascal. Originating in Yorkshire, this is a tea biscuit enriched with lard and full of plump dried fruit.
For all the fancy white gloves, elegant silverware and carefully moulded ices, I suspect the best Afternoon tea gatherings would be enlivened by a few Fat Rascals.
See more articles by Robert Godden here.
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